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Canada is now fully engaged in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), destined to become the largest free trade zone in the world.
Elected politicians, even Conservative elected politicians, are, for the most part, being kept away from these crucial discussions.
Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister's unelected Chief of Staff and a Bay Street veteran, is running the TPP talks for Canada, no doubt consulting closely and out-of-public-view with key corporate "stakeholders."
At the same time, Canada continues to castigate Europe's supposedly bloated and overly-indebted welfare states - even though, as the Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner has pointed out, those accusations are "drivel." The fact is that the more generous and fully-developed welfare states in Northern Europe, such as Sweden, have rather low debt-to-GDP ratios, quite a bit lower than Canada's.
It seems, however, that the Conservative government is not too worried about offending the Europeans even while it attempts to negotiate a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union (EU).
That may be because the TPP talks have bumped CETA down the free trade priority list.
Given that - is there hope that as the refugee reform bill, C-31, works its way through the Senate, the government might be less reluctant to tweak European countries for their abysmal human rights record with regard to the Roma people?
What is a 'safe country?'
Clearing up irritants with Europe that stood in the way of CETA was, from the outset, an undisguised motive for the new "safe designated country of origin" provisions in C-31.
After all, the government already had "safe country" provisions in the previous refugee bill that passed the previous parliament but was never implemented.
Those rules provided that asylum seekers from countries designated as safe would have a somewhat speeded up process, but would still get a fair hearing.
Safe country asylum seekers would still have access to the new Refugee Appeal Division that the government is setting up, for instance.
As well, the rules in the refugee legislation passed by the previous parliament set up a transparent, fair and non-political process for determining safe countries. That process involved the advice of a panel of human rights experts.
The cruel fact is that there is very little chance that any independent human rights panel would declare certain post-Communist EU countries to be safe.
Hungary is the case Immigration Minister Kenney has cited many times, as a "liberal, democratic" country, similar to Canada.
However, there is a mountain of evidence, currently, that in Hungary human rights are sliding downhill fast, like a sled on an icy slope. That stark reality appears to be one motive for Bill C-31's much less open and fair, and much more political, process for determining safe countries.
Quality versus quantity in designating countries
C-31 provides for a general and vague qualitative assessment of the human rights situation in notionally safe countries, as well as a more determinant "quantitative" criterion: the rate at which asylum claims for a given country are rejected, abandoned or withdrawn.
Kenney has already stated, on numerous occasions, that, in the case of Hungary, he believes the quantitative will easily trump the qualitative.
The Minister's view appears to be that the best way to determine whether or not a house is on fire is to stand ten blocks away and count the people running away. He does not seem to think it might be useful to spend some time examining the house itself.
After all, the reasons for abandonment, withdrawal and rejection of claims could be many. The percentage of such cases does not necessarily prove that any country is safe.
And the Minister and Conservative politicians (such as Senator Judith Seidman at Tuesday's Committee hearing on C-31) cite figures on rejection, abandonment and withdrawal rates very selectively.
They always mention the 2010 figures, which show a very small number of Roma refugees accepted. They virtually never mention the more recent figures for 2011, which show a much larger number of accepted Roma refugee cases, about equal to the number of refugees Canada accepted for that year from North Korea.
The figures notwithstanding, the fact is that, in the view of virtually all experts on human rights, one can only know how safe a country is by considering the actual conditions in that country.
This is what 'the house' looks like
On Tuesday, the executive director of the Toronto Roma Community Centre, Gina Csanyi, spoke to the Senate Committee studying C-31, and tried to paint a picture of what is really going on in countries, such as Hungary, that Kenney and his colleagues are so anxious to declare safe.
Hill Dispatches has reported on much of this over the past few months.
We have reported on the increase in verbal and physical violence directed against the Roma minority in Hungary.
We have described the vertiginous rise of the Hungarian extremist far right Jobbik Party, which now holds 47 seats in the Hungarian parliament and received 17 per cent of the vote in the last election (more than twice the 7 per cent the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party just got, which caused such a great brouhaha in the Canadian media). Jobbik, like the European fascist parties of the 1920s and 30s, works in hand-in-glove with self-styled "guardists" or "militias," street level thugs who engage in active intimidation of Roma, and increasingly, of late, Jews as well.
We have described the general antipathy of the majority population toward the Roma (and increasingly the Jews) which creates a permissive environment for the extremists, and we have described the inability or unwillingness of the Hungarian and other governments to take serious measures to control and restrain the extremists.
We have even described the vicious Jobbik television commercial that portrays the Roma as mosquitoes and Jobbik leader, Gabor Vona, as a hero, slapping an annoying mosquito dead! Such a commercial would almost certainly be deemed illegal hate speech in Canada.
An entire community denigrated by a Minister of the Crown
Csanyi-Robah described all of this and much more, and talked about the struggles of the Roma community in Canada.
She described what it feels like to have a Minister of the Crown demonize an entire community as "bogus refugees." And she pointed out that racism in Hungary has become so acute that there are now Hungarian Jews, as well as Roma, coming to Canada seeking refugee status.
The Committee members, both Liberal and Conservative, listened with rapt attention to Csanyi-Robah's impassioned presentation, as did the other witnesses also present on Tuesday.
Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation and Martin Collacott of a right-of-centre group lobbying for immigration reform both came to support C-31, and they did just that. But after hearing what Csanyi-Robah had to say, they did not engage in the over-the-top and unfair characterizations of the Roma that one often hears from such interveners.
Collacott, in fact, readily admitted that Roma are mistreated in Europe and are victims of severe discrimination. He added, however, that being victims of discrimination is not necessarily the same as being refugees according to the 1951 Geneva Convention.
An observer commented afterward that Collacott might be right that all Roma from such countries as Hungary might not qualify as refugees, under the law.
However, given his admission of the terrible conditions for Roma in Hungary and other Central European countries, why would Collacott (and his Conservative friends) think it right to declare those countries "safe?"
That is the question nobody has answered - unless the reason is to avoid irritants with the EU as Canada seeks to negotiate the CETA.
As Csanyi-Robah said, all her community asks for is that Roma who seek asylum in Canada be given a fair hearing. Their cases should not be prejudiced, she pleaded, by politicians declaring in advance that they are all "bogus," and by the government deeming that the countries from which the Roma come are "safe."
Those countries are definitely not safe, Csanyi-Robah insisted.
Jewish Nobel Prize winner condemns Hungary
To underscore Csanyi-Robah's point about the increasing virulence of racist hate in Hungary, Nobel laureate and Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel announced on Monday that he is repudiating a Hungarian government award he received in 2004, because top officials in Budapest attended a ceremony for a Nazi sympathizer.
Wiesel was presented with the Republic of Hungary's Order of Merit, the Grand Cross, in 2004.
In a letter addressed to the Hungarian House Speaker, Wiesel criticized the Hungarian government for participating in attempts to undertake the "reburial" of ethnic-Hungarian author Jozsef Nyiro.
"It is with profound dismay and indignation that I learned of your participation, together with Hungarian Secretary of State for Culture and far-right Jobbik party leader Gabor Vona, in a ceremony in Romania honoring Jozsef Nyiro, a member of the National Socialist Arrow Cross Parliament," Wiesel said.
The Nobel Prize winner added that he was outraged that the Hungarian House Speaker had participated in a ceremony honoring "a fascist ideologue of the [interwar and wartime authoritarian and anti-Semitic regimes] of Admiral Horthy and Nazi Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szalasi."
Still a chance to amend C-31
The Senate is still considering Bill C-31.
There is a Conservative majority in the red chamber now, so the government can probably expect the bill to pass quickly and without amendment.
However, all Senators, regardless of party affiliation, might want to examine the safe country provisions very carefully, and consider the consequences of declaring such countries as Hungary to be safe.
There will be consequences for Canada if it decides to "honour" a country such as Hungary just as people of the stature of Elie Wiesel are condemning it. And there will be dire - perhaps even horrific - consequences for the hundreds of thousands of Roma and Jews still in that country.
Such a declaration of "safe country" would be interpreted as a form of approval from Canada by the growing ranks racist extremists in Central Europe. Jobbik leader Gabor Vona and his street thug allies would be able to boast that even "nice, human-rights respecting" Canada does not object to what they are doing.
Amending Bill C-31 to provide for independent human rights counsel in the determination of safe countries of origin would go a long way to making sure that Canada does not, however inadvertently, give succor to racist extremists.
The Roma in Canada - as well as a growing segment of the Jewish community - sincerely hope that when it comes to the refugee reform bill now before them the Senators will take to heart their role as members of the "chamber of sober second thought."
Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.